On Monday, the Government published it’s food strategy white paper – the much anticipated response to the National Food Strategy, authored by restauranteur Henry Dimbleby.

In his introduction, Dimbleby said:

“the food we eat – and the way we produce it – is doing terrible damage to our planet and to our health. The global food system is the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss, deforestation, drought, freshwater pollution and the collapse of aquatic wildlife. It is the second-biggest contributor to climate change, after the energy industry. Our eating habits are destroying the environment. And this in turn threatens our food security.”

The Government’s response to his recommendations, needed to be bold, ambitious and transformative. Whilst there are a few elements that are promising, overall the food strategy lacks many new proposals, and certainly does not deliver the change, at scale, that we need to see to protect people, the environment and our food security into the future. It also does not propose any primary legislation such as a Food Bill that would have enshrined their proposals in law.

What does the food strategy say?

Understandably, the food strategy focusses on the current conflict in Ukraine and the covid-19 pandemic as examples of why we need a more resilient food system – however it does not address the fact that we need to think longer term to protect us from the next crises we will inevitably face. It also talks about the rising cost of living, the obesity crisis, and the need to ensure healthy food for all, as well as climate change and nature. To address these issues the strategy lists three objectives:

  • A prosperous agri-food and seafood sector that ensures a secure food supply in an unpredictable world and contributes to the levelling up agenda through good quality jobs around the country
  • A sustainable, nature positive, affordable food system that provides choice and access to high quality products that support healthier and home-grown diets for all
  • Trade that provides export opportunities and consumer choice through imports, without compromising our regulatory standards for food, whether produced domestically or imported

It also makes some more specific and positive commitments such as:

  • Reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the environmental impacts of the food system, in line with our net zero commitments and biodiversity targets
  • Maintain high standards for food consumed in the UK, wherever it is produced
  • Publish a land use framework in 2023 to ensure we meet our net zero and biodiversity targets
  • Champion a nature-positive global food system
  • Encourage healthier and more sustainable dietary choices
  • Create a more transparent food system
  • As part of a Government buying standards consultation, propose that the public sector reports on progress towards an aspiration that 50% of its food expenditure is on food produced locally or to higher environmental production standards such as organic

However, when it comes to bold action that would genuinely drive these ambitions, the strategy is lacking and underwhelming. It shies away from tackling some of the big issues facing our food system, and that will be essential for securing long term food security, human health and nature’s recovery.

An example: Pesticide use

We know that pesticides are used extensively in agriculture. In 2020, the average number of active substances applied to each arable crop in the UK was 13.5, with at least 150 different active substances were used on British farmland. The area treated with pesticides was about 40,000,000ha – ten times more than the area used for all arable crops, showing again how many times each crop is treated.

Pesticides are designed to kill – they impact species right along the food chain – and they make their way into soils, water and our food. Pesticides are strongly implicated in driving the massive decline of insects worldwide, and therefore all that relies on insects. It is vital that we tackle this over-reliance on chemical inputs and find more nature-friendly ways to grow food.

The Government has committed to supporting farmers to increase their use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – a holistic way to manage pests and diseases with chemical pesticides used as a last resort. There will be an IPM standard in the upcoming Environment Land Management (ELM) Scheme in England, and the soon to be published National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (NAP) should commit to a variety of measures to increase uptake of IPM.

However, astonishingly, IPM and pesticide reduction is not mentioned once in the food strategy. In fact, it specifically says we need to “ensure continued certainty and availability for all inputs which underpin our food production” – rather than any measures to reduce the reliance on these inputs in the first place.

There is a long section on “reducing barriers and bureaucracy following Brexit” which is worrying in the context of the pesticide approvals process potentially being weakened. And, despite reiterating that environmental standards won’t be undermined in future trade deals, there is a section stating that “we are advocating for all countries, including in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to keep food trade flowing and avoid trade restrictive measures”.

What is needed?

The strategy has a big focus on technology being what will fix everything, and a total lack of mention of how nature can help us grow healthy food sustainably. There is nothing in the strategy to address HOW food is grown, and in fact mentions that “intensification” in some areas will be needed to counter areas set aside for nature.

The Government must do more, and do it faster, if we are to tackle the interrelated crises of biodiversity loss, climate change and human health.

As Henry Dimbleby summarised:

“Transforming the food system will require change at all levels: structural, cultural, local and individual. But it is work that must be done. If we seize this opportunity, we can improve our health, protect our environment and build a better future for our children and grandchildren”